The son of a Czech innkeeper helps America find its own classical music voice
By Gary Barton
I first "met" Antonin Dvorák in the small town of Granger, Indiana, but didn't know it at the time. My dad used to bring home bargain basement LPs from Chicago, one of which was "Music of the South" on the Acorn label. That is all it said on the disc, however. There was no composer listed, nor were a title, orchestra, conductor, opus number or key signature to be found either. But I fell in love with the music. It was around this time I began conducting imaginary orchestras. (Admit it, you've done it too.)
Eventually, I found out the work I loved was Antonin Dvorák's "New World" Symphony. It was considered Dvorák's 5th Symphony at the time, but we have since learned it was his ninth and final work in that form. The "New World" Symphony, along with the Beethoven Symphonies on 78 RPM discs my grandmother gave me, marked the beginning of an avocation and a vocation in classical music.
Dvorák was born September 8, 1841 in Nelahozeves, Bohemia. His father was an innkeeper and butcher who played the violin and zither. As a boy, Dvorák's first instrument was violin, which he learned to play in relatively little time. He was good enough to entertain his father's customers with dance tunes and sometimes-sad village melodies. He played at village fairs, sang in the church choir, visited traveling gypsies to revel in their passionate music and loved to hear the village elders sing their songs. He absorbed the music around him like a sponge.
He was sent to live with his uncle in Zlonice at age 14 to learn to speak German. There he studied with Antonin Liehmann, who quickly saw Dvorák was a gifted young musician. Dvorák was a "quick study," learning piano, viola and organ, but Liehmann soon realized the student required more sophisticated instruction and tried to convince Dvorák's father to send him to Prague. Dvorák's father adamantly refused, convinced that music was a diversion and not an occupation.
Nevertheless, when he was 16, Dvorák entered organ school in Prague. His father retaliated by cutting off his living expenses, but Dvorák decided to stay in Prague, paying his own way. He got a job in the orchestra of The National Opera when he finished school, where he worked for 11 years, but his income was so small that he could barely afford to rent a piano.
As Jonathon D. Kramer tells it is his book Listen to the Music: "Dvorák was an unknown, impoverished, 32-year-old composer when his lady-friend informed him that she was pregnant. Despite poor financial prospects, the couple hastily married. Dvorák felt an acute need for money, and he did what most unknown, impoverished composers of today do: he applied for a grant. The committee was impressed, and he got the Austrian State grant, three years in succession." Johannes Brahms was on the three-judge panel, and it was with his help that Dvorák's first works, the Moravian Dances, were published, followed by the first set of eight Slavonic Dances.
Almost overnight Dvorák's name became known all over Europe. His music was heard everywhere, in all instrumental combinations. Before the phonograph, television and radio, sheet music that could be played in the home and at social occasions was the major means of promulgating music. Slavonic Dances sold as fast as they could be printed, and Dvorák's career was launched.
Fast forward 14 years... Mrs. Jeanette Thurber, president of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City invited Dvorák to come to America to direct the institution.
Dvorák hated to leave his homeland, but the temptation of a salary 25 times more than he was earning was too much to resist. He was impressed and overwhelmed by New York City. He would not leave his lodgings or the Conservatory without someone to accompany him. The noise of the city's steam-powered elevated train system, the looming buildings and the crowds of reporters following him everywhere in search of a scoop were a trying experience.
Mrs. Thurber's goal in bringing Dvorák to America was to help our country find its "musical voice." Certainly there were respected and established American composers, but they had all studied in Europe and were writing European music. Knowing Dvorák's love for the music of indigenous peoples, Thurber hoped that he could found a school of truly "American" music. At the Conservatory, he became very interested in the music of Native Americans and traditional Afro-American spirituals and plantation songs as the basis for the "American style."
While the "New World" Symphony was taking form in Dvorák's mind, Dvorák wanted to hear some music by Native Americans. The closest Mrs. Thurber could come to fulfilling that desire was to take him to "Buffalo Bill" Cody's Wild West Show. There was a lot of hoopla, including a reenactment of Custer's last stand, but Dvorák was fascinated by the rhythm of the Indian drumming and war cries. The result was the completed symphony using many themes he had planned for an opera based on Longfellow's "The Song of Hiawatha." The final page of "From The New World" Symphony is inscribed: "Praise God! Completed 24 May 1893 at 9 o'clock in the morning."
It wasn't until the following summer that Dvorák had a chance to meet and listen to "genuine" Indian music, while he was taking a much-needed respite from the chaos of New York City in the Czech community of Spillville, Iowa. His English teacher/translator was from Spillville (They had met in Bohemia.), and the community of 3,000 made Dvorák feel at home. Dvorák and his new friends spent many hours talking of the old country, making music and drinking copious quantities of beer, although the town was legally dry.
Dvorák's soul soared as the hubbub of the city was left behind. His creative juices began to flow. That summer he wrote his "American Quartet" (No. 12 in F, Op. 96), and his String Quintet in E flat, Op. 97. He wrote the Sonatina in G for Violin & Piano, Op. 100 for his children. (It was actually Opus 98, but he added a couple of digits to make it an even 100 to please the children.) The 2nd movement of the Sonatina was inspired by Dvorák's first visit to Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis. He sketched the theme on one of his starched shirtcuffs, as he also habitually notated birdsong and other inspirations much to the chagrin of the family's laundress.
Dvorák wrote home that he could spend the rest of his life in Spillville, but he had to return to his duties at the Conservatory in New York in the autumn, and he didn't stay as long as been planned. Mrs. Thurber's generosity was ultimately curtailed as she lost most of her husband's fortune in the stock market. Dvorák's paychecks started arriving late, and he and his family eventually returned to Europe while he still had the resources, never again to set foot on American soil.
The Essential Dvorák
Symphony #9, "From The New World"
Each of these is a great performance, but Levine's is divine.
1. Chicago Symphony Orchestra, James Levine conducting; RCA Red Seal 68013. Also includes Dvorák's Symphony No. 7.
2. Berlin Philharmonic, Rafael Kubelik conducting; DG 447412. Also includes Dvorák's Symphony No. 8.
3. Budapest Festival Orchestra, Ivan Fischer conducting; Philips 470617; Hybrid SACD. Also includes Dvorák's Symphony No. 8.
1. Budapest Festival Orchestra, Ivan Fischer; Philips 470601; Hybrid SACD. A fine new recording of both the Opus 46 and Opus 72 sets.
2. Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Rafael Kubelik conducting; DG 469366; 3 CDs. Contains all of the Slavonic Dances, plus five Overtures and five Symphonic Poems.
String Quartet No. 12 in F, Opus 96, "American"
1. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Charles Rosekrans conducting; Telarc 60610; Hybrid SACD.
Highly recommended. A wonderful audio/musical experience, this sensitive adaptation also includes Gustav Mahler's arrangement for string orchestra of Schubert's "Death & The Maiden" Quartet. This CD is a must have for Dvorák lovers.
2. Juilliard Quartet; Sony 48170. Also includes Dvorák's Piano Quintet In A Major, Op. 8.
String Quintet in E flat, Opus 97, "American"
The Complete String Quintets; Members of the Berlin Philharmonic Octet; Philips 462284; 2 CDs.
Sonatina in G major, Op. 100
Dvorák For Two: Works For Violin & Piano, Gil & Orli Shaham; DG 449820.
String Quartet No. 12 in F, Opus 96, "American"
String Quintet in E flat, Opus 97, "American"
Keller Quartet, Anna Deeva, viola ; Apex 44355. Both the "Spillville
Chamber Works" on one budget-priced CD.
Dvorák in America: In Search of the New World
By Joseph Horowitz
There is an excellent book available on this period of Dvorák's life. Author Joseph Horowitz makes very clear the importance Dvorák saw in spirituals and work songs; the book begins with a chapter on Harry Burleigh, whose grandfather had been a slave and had been allowed to buy his freedom for $50. Harry's mother had a college degree and taught Sunday school at a predominantly white church. A collection was taken up in Erie Pennsylvania, his hometown, in 1829 to send Burleigh to New York. He was 25. At Burleigh's audition with Dvorák he sang as he played piano first "Go Down, Moses" and then "Deep River." Dvorák was reduced to tears by Burleigh's singing.
There were 800 white students in the National Conservatory of Music, and it was the goal of Dvorák and Mrs. Thurber to find at least that many young black students from all parts of the country who, if capable, would be allowed to study there free of any tuition. Through the help of the Afro-American students in the conservatory, spirituals became one of the inspirations of Dvorák's American "school" of music.